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Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes


The following two quotes highlight both the past and present status of the military’s

relationship with the media.

1864: I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their

camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in

truth, they are. General William Tecumseh Sherman

2004: Quote from writer on relationship between press and PAOs. “I

could spout off more about the indignities, incompetence, and rudeness I

have been subjected to by PAOs, but the high ground in this discussion

is not going to be held by whining. It will be won and held with

constructive solutions.” James Lacey, OCT 2004 issue of Proceedings

In 140 years, has the relationship improved that much? If this necessary interaction is

so strained, why not find a way to fix it? Using the theories of Earnest Bormann and

Robert Cialdini might shed light on how to improve this association. Bormann’s theory

of symbolic convergence (SCT) uses the sharing of group fantasies to achieve a symbolic

“meeting of the minds” between two opposing groups. Robert Cialdini’s “tools of

influence” focus on using mental “shortcuts” to sway opinion and action. By examining

these two theories in depth, their foundations, criticisms, and practical applications, we

will see how they could be used either together or separately to improve the military-

media relationship.

Bormann and SCT

Ernest Bormann began his work on SCT in the early 1970’s. Inspired by the work of a

Freudian scholar, Robert Bales, Bormann’s studies of group behavior inspired him to


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

theorize that groups collectively dream. He surmised that just as individuals dream

during the day and night about events that do not presently exist, groups too create

fantasies that help them cope with their social realities. (Gunn, 48) Therefore, he

designed his work around a study of group interaction and how he could predict their

activities. Bormann himself described SCT as, “a general theory which provides a

universal explanation of human communication.” (Bormann, 51) While the term

“general” appears somewhat broad, within communications theory, it has specific


SCT as a general theory of communication

As a general theory, SCT deals with, “tendencies in human communication events that

cannot be ignored or rescinded by participants.” (Bormann, 2) As a general theory, SCT

is both transcultural and transhistorical and accounts for the creation and use of special

communications theories. (Bormann, 2)

While considered a general theory of communication, compared with other theories -

SCT is also a social theory. Where agenda setting theory relies on media for

communication, primarily SCT relies on the verbal communication within small groups.

Of course, the application of SCT relies on some basic assumptions. In defining these

assumptions for their work on applying SCT to corporate strategic planning, John Cragan

and Donald Shields established six critical assumptions for SCT. (Cragan and Shields,



Meaning, emotion, and motive for action are in the manifest content of the



Reality is created symbolically.


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

3. Fantasy theme chaining creates symbolic convergence that is dramatistic in form.

4. Fantasy theme analysis is the basic method to capture symbolic reality.

5. Fantasy themes occur in and chain out from all discourse.

6. At least three master analogues righteous, social, and pragmatic compete as

alternative explanations of symbolic reality.

SCT definitions

To further help in understanding SCT, Bormann defines some of the key terms above

that make up his theory. Understanding the key terms of communication, symbolic

convergence, fantasy type, rhetorical community, rhetorical vision, and saga help put his

theory into perspective.

Bormann defines communication as a human social process where people create, raise,

and sustain consciousness. It is in this definition of communication that we see SCT as a

social theory. SCT requires communication between people.

Symbolic convergence is not necessarily an event as it is a process. First, symbolic

convergence, “creates, maintains and allows people to achieve empathetic communion as

well as a ‘meeting of the minds.’” (Bormann, 51) Second, the convergence is symbolic.

The symbology of SC is in the human tendency to interpret signs, objects, and the things

people say or do and assign meaning to them.

Finally, the convergence portion of SC

is the way in which two or more, “private symbolic worlds incline towards each other,

come more closely together, or even overlap.” (Bormann, 51)

Critical to the process of SC is the definition of fantasy. A fantasy is the, “creative and

imaginative interpretation of events that fulfils a psychological rhetorical need.” (Griffin,

38) An example of a fantasy might be seen in Sherman’s quote, “all reporters are spies.”


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

While this fantasy might not be true, for Sherman’s group it explains why papers

consistently published military secrets.

Rhetorical communities are those that share the fantasy. They are the members of the

group that share a rhetorical vision. This vision is a, “shared script” that predicts how

events will occur. Using the Sherman example, the community is made up of military

officers. The rhetorical vision is the collection of shared fantasies that paint an overall

picture of the community’s perspective. For example, Sherman’s spies fantasy coupled

with other fantasies within the group of reporters paint a vision of “reporters are the

enemy” for the entire group.

The final term, saga, also plays a critical role in SCT. A saga is a, “detailed narrative of

the achievement and events in the life of a person, group, community, or organization.”

According to Bormann, it is the glue that binds the community together. The saga is the

shared events or stories in the group’s past that tie it together. The saga is the impetus

between “us versus them.” (Bormann, 53) Using the Sherman example, the saga for his

group of officers might be the battles and campaigns his officers shared over the course

of the war. Certainly the reporters could not share in this group saga as they were banned

from camp and remained on the outside looking in.

Strengths and criticisms

There are several strengths to SCT as a communications theory. First and foremost,

SCT has objective characteristics that allow it to explain the past and present and predict

the future. Bormann uses a three-part structure to show how the theory can be applied.

First, SCT is used to discover the recurring forms of communication indicative of a

shared group consciousness. Second, the theory explains why a group consciousness


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

begins, rises, and is sustained , thus providing meaning, emotion, and motive for

members of a symbolic community. Third, SCT clarifies the process of how people

“share(or cease to share)” a common symbolic reality. (Cragan and Shields, 200)

Another strength of SCT is that it is “transhistorical” and “transcultural.” (Bormann, 2)

In this way, it can be used to explain the actions of small groups from the Roman Empire

as well as present day Middle America. The last strength of SCT is that it has proven

itself in practical applications. The theory has seen applications in education, corporate

planning, and political strategy.

The theory, however, is not without its weaknesses and criticisms. The first critic of

Bormann was G. P. Mohrmann. His criticisms were three-fold. First, symbolic

convergence theory reinvented the wheel. Mohrmann charged that Bormann was merely

putting a confusing spin on the work of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic vocabulary and

Roland Barthes’s semiotics (Gunn, 50)

Second, the theory lacked rigor and its method promoted “cookie-cutter” or formulaic

solutions. Mohrmann again charged that Bormann’s “basic definitions lack precision”

and that his theory consequently, “lacked sophistication and invited mechanical


Furthermore, he stated that all that fantasy theme analysis seemed to

achieve was “the discovery of themes, types, and visions” as a “self-contained exercise,

not signaling that life is drama, only that it can be described in dramatic terms.” (Gunn,


The final criticism of Bormann is that his theory is based on Freud and, thus, is internally

contradictory. At the heart of the charge, was that to Freud, “individual dreams were

misleading distortions of wishes and unconscious desires; hence, the motive or source of


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

group fantasy, likewise, could not be discerned on the basis of surface texts and apparent

fantasies.” Picking up on this, Joshua Gunn in 2003 went on to expand on this concept

and even provoked a response from Bormann himself. (see Defending Symbolic

Convergence Theory From an Imaginary Gunn, Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 89, No.

4, November 2003, pp. 366372)

Opportunities for application

While Bormann had his critics, his supporters include Cragan, Shields, Novek, and

Haskins. These researchers all contributed to Bormann’s original work by demonstrating

the theory’s practical applications.

Bormann himself provides application recommendations for teachers and consultants.

To this end, he indicated that the theory could be helpful diagnosing communications

malfunctions and assessing communications effects.

In diagnosing communications malfunctions, Bormann suggests SCT can be applied to

organizational audits. Teachers and consultants can use individual and group interviews

to discover the dramatizing messages, stories, histories, and anecdotes that members tell

to each other. Additionally, Bormann suggests consultants review official

communications documents such as mission statements, organizational goals, and plans.

Unofficial documents are important too. Poems, songs, jokes, bulletin boards, and

newsletters are also important to glean shared fantasies. By examining these documents

and conducting interviews, Bormann suggests that a rhetorical vision will emerge. This

vision will lead to defining the communications malfunction. (Bormann, 56)

An example of this application is seen in the work of Elanor Novek.

She was able to

explore communications issues at a prison by using SCT to analyze the prison newspaper.


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

Through her work, she concluded that the prison newspaper allowed the inmates to,

“build community through shared narratives” and construct a rhetorical vision of the

institution. (Novek, 299)

Bormann also suggests that consultants can use SCT to assess communication effects.

In analyzing the 1976 presidential campaign, he demonstrated SCT could also study mass

media effects. In particular, his studies provided a detailed and “plausible” explanation

of the relationship among campaign messages, media coverage, and voting behavior.

(Bormann, 57) In an interesting twist, the researchers investigated cartoons as the basis

of their qualitative research. Repeated again in the 1980 campaign, Bormann was also

able to chart the rise, progression, and decline of major rhetorical visions and how they

could be used to predict election results. (Bormann, 59)

Another suggested application for SCT is for corporate strategic planning and business

leadership. In their 1992 case study, Cragan and Shields demonstrated how SCT could

be used to review organizational communication. Using interviews and surveys, Cragan

and Shields to help the organization determine a name, explain the corporate saga,

determine positioning statements, establish market segmentation, and select appropriate

sales stories / advertising messages. (Cragan and Shields, 215) In one of his earlier

works, Bormann, Pratt and Putnam looked at the interaction between male and female

leaders within a simulated business organization. Their research included reviewing

decision-making communication, conflict management communication, and interpreted

shared group fantasies to address the issues of power, authority and sex within the

workplace. One of their most significant findings was that males shared a “castigation”

fantasy when demoted in front of female peers. (Bormann, Pratt, Putnam, 119-120)


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

A competing theory - Cialdini and “tools of influence”

Robert Cialdini’s “tools of persuasion” provide a different approach to

communications theory. First researched in 1972, Cialdini has spent years developing

and refining his tools. Similar to Petty and Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model,

Cialdini suggests that six basic principles of behavior used singly or in combinations

engender compliance with a request. Originally called, “weapons of influence,”

Cialdini’s six tools persuade by, “appealing to a limited set of deeply rooted human

drives and needs in a predictable way.” (Mandell, 35) Similar to the elaboration

likelihood model’s peripheral branch, Cialdini’s tools work best on those who lack the

motivation and ability to process elaboration. The practical applications of his work are

seen in his recommendations for brokers, managers, and even non-profit organizations.

Cialdini’s work is not considered a classic communication theory. In fact, Cialdini’s

background is psychology. Despite this background, however, Cialdini’s work has

objective characteristics much like Bormann’s. Similar to Bormann’s SCT, Cialdini’s

tools of influence seek to define why someone acted as they did and predict how they will

act in the future.

Additionally, Cialdini’s work is complimentary to that of Petty and Cacioppo. In their

work on ELM, they looked at two routes by which receivers (people) are persuaded

(Figure 1). One route, the central route, requires receivers to, “carefully scrutinize the

ideas, try to figure out if they have merit, and mull over their implications.” (Griffin,

198) Using this rational route can be time consuming and requires both the motivation to

process and ability to process the argument. On the other hand, the peripheral route


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

offers a shortcut to either accept or reject an argument, “without any active thinking

about the attributes of the issue or the object of consideration.” (Griffin, 198)

the issue or the object of consideration.” (Griffin, 198) Figure 1 It is on this peripheral

Figure 1

It is on this peripheral route that

Cialdini found his niche. On the

peripheral route, receivers rely on

a variety of clues that allow them

ot make quick decision thus

allowing them to avoid extensive

“cognitive work.” (Griffin, 198)

Tools of Influence Keys to the

kingdom of persuasion

“Tools of influence” are another

word for “clues.” In 1984, Cialdini defined these six important tools of influence. The

principle of liking proposes people like those that like them. As a rule, he proposes,

persuaders should uncover real similarities between themselves and the receiver and offer

genuine praise. (Cialdini, 74) As a result, his research proves that if you “love me,

you’ll love my ideas.” (Griffin, 198) The next principle is that of reciprocity (you owe

me). Reciprocity is the theory that people will repay in kind. (Cialdini, 75) Therefore,

those who wish to persuade with this tool should give what you want to receive. The

third principle is that of social proof (everybody’s doing it). Social proof finds its power

in the thought that people will follow the lead of similar others. (Cialdini, 76)


proposes that we should use “peer power” whenever possible. The next tool of influence

is consistency (we’ve always done it that way). Consistency dictates that people will


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

align with their clear commitments. Those wishing to utilize this tool should make their

commitments “active, public, and voluntary.” (Cialdini, 76) Authority (because I say so)

is the rule that states people will defer to experts. Thos wishing to utilize authority

should expose their expertise and should not assume it is self evident. (Cialdini, 77) The

final principle is that of scarcity (quick, before they’re all gone). Cialdini believes that

people want more of what they can have less of. Persuaders using this clue should

highlight unique benefits and exclusive information. (Cialdini, 78)

Strengths and criticisms

As seen with SCT, each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses. One of the

strengths of Cialdini’s work is its simplicity. Cialdini himself describes them as, “easy

for most people to grasp, even those with formal education in psychology.” (Cialdini,


this simplicity has allowed him to travel across the country using the theory as a

basis for business lectures. Another strength of Cialdini’s principles is that they will be

more useful in the future. Cialdini explains that each tool has the ability to produce a,

“distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is a willingness to say

yes without thinking first.” (Cialdini, xiv) He argues that in the ever-accelerating

informational crush of modern life, “this form of unthinking compliance will be more

prevalent in our future.”

The final strength of Cialdini’s work is that it has been well

researched and scrutinized over the past three decades. While Cialdini has been

responsible for the majority of the research, the business community has heavily

recommended his principles. George Soros, Peter Lynch, and Berkshire Hathaway Vice

Chair Charles Munger all attest to the validity (financial mainly) of Cialdini’s principles.


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

The first criticism against Cialdini might come from another theory. The work of

agenda setting advocates such as Shaw suggest that persuasion itself is losing ground to

“informational gated communities.” Receivers of today are relying more and more to

mediums of persuasion which they chose. For example, those who gain all their

information from a specific set of blogs, will not respond to persuaders from outside that

community regardless of their authority. Those who wish to persuade, must be within

the gated community to do so before any of Cialdini’s tools might have an affect. Shaw,


Another criticism of Cialdini comes from observing those who initially reject attempts at

persuasion. Tormala and Petty researched attitudes of people being persuaded and the

damage done to the persuader’s cause if initially rejected. They originally assumed that

when a would-be persuader was unsuccessful in an attempt to change a target attitude,

little or no damage was done to the overall “cause” Their findings, however, showed that

failed persuasion attempts can backfire by making people more committed than ever to

their original attitudes. (Tormala and Petty, 441)

Applications for Cialdini

Cialdini does not hide the fact that the major applications for his work rest with those in

the business of selling. In fact, Cialdini has made a significant amount of money

traveling the country selling his books to marketers, brokers, and advertisers. Nancy

Mandell of On Wall Street aimed the lessons of Cialdini at fee based financial advisers.

(Mandell, 34) In examining the branding of Lexus and Rolex, Cialdni examined how

consumers’ purchasing habits were influenced by comparisons with individuals who were

wealthier and more successful than themselves.


These results were geared towards

Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

advertisers and supported his principle of social proof. (Mandel, Petrova, and Cialdini,

68) Cialdini has also found application for managers. He suggests that managers could

use the tools of influence to persuade office mates and subordinates. He furthermore

suggest they rely on conversations and informal interaction to implement the tactics.

(Cialdini, 79)

The way forward How can I apply the two theories?

Both Bormann and Cialdini present communications theories that have been proven in

practical applications. Bormann’s theory can be used to define and predict the actions of

groups. Cialdini’s principles can be used to persuade. These two theories can be used in

concert to improve the relationship between the military and media.

The first step of this application would be to utilize Bormann’s theory to select and

define the media as a small group. The application should focus on small group such as a

media pool or beat reporters in an area surrounding a military post. Using Bormann’s

three steps, research should be designed to,

1. Determine the recurring forms of communication indicative of a shared media pool

group consciousness.

2. Determine how the group consciousness began, rose, and is sustained, thus providing

meaning, emotion, and motive for members of the media community.

3. Clarify the process of how the media “share” a common symbolic reality.


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

Throughout this process, the media’s fantasies (Figure 2) and saga would be identified

They’re out for a scoop Military are mouthpieces They don’t know They are anything about
They’re out
for a scoop
Military are
They don’t know
They are
anything about
They just
out of touch
what we do
want to
They are lying
with reality
They don’t
to us
share the
They are
avoiding our
They hate
the Army
Have pressure
form the top
that died
Mustn’t get
Have to
ahead of policy
Want the
Responsible for
Don’t totally
Have oath to
understand but
want to learn
Have strong
Where is the
common ground?
Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence and the Military vs. Media Relationship

Figure 2

media official and un-official communication.

thus allowing prediction

of future media actions.

Utilizing SCT to with

the media would require

building a

comprehensive media

list for the group,

conducting surveys,

follow-up interviews,

and content analysis of

In an ideal world, SCT would lead to a meeting of the minds. However, if that is not

possible, the second part of the application is to implement Cialdini’s tools of influence.

How can those who fall outside the “common ground” be influenced? (Figure 3) Most

Symbolic Convergence Cialdini’s Area common of Influence ground Application of Cialdini in Military – Media
Cialdini’s Area
of Influence
Application of Cialdini in Military – Media Relationship - Influencing the outliers

Figure 3


public affairs officers lament the

coverage media provide to high

profile events and curse

coverage of highly negative

events. Throughout the

implementation of SCT, many of

the media’s likes and dislikes

Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

will be learned by exposing fantasies and sagas. Using these exposed points of influence,

select tools could be successfully implemented. Cialdini realizes all six tools might not

be successful if used simultaneously. Ideally, through interviews, surveys and content

analysis, two or three of Cialdini’s techniques might be identified as viable alternatives.

Using these tools could lead to reporters being more receptive to pitched stories.

Additionally, using these tools could also be used to obtain coverage at key community

relations events,


Both Bormann and Cialdini’s theories provide a fresh, relevant, and proven approach to

improving relationships within small groups and between individuals. The relationship

between the military and media is an important subject that must be improved to maintain

public trust and ensure success of future military campaigns. By utilizing these two

theories, the relationship can be improved and all groups will benefit.


Applying Communications Theory to the Military Media Relationship Social Convergence Theory and its Possibilities Author: Paul Hayes

Works Cited

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Bormann, Ernest G. "A Fantasy theme analysis of the television coverage of the hostage release and the Regan Inaugural." Quarterly Journal of Speech 68.2 (1982): 133.

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Mandel, Naomi, Petrova, Petia K., and Robert B. Cialdini. "Images of Success and the Preference for Luxury Brands." Journal of Consumer Psychology 16.1 (2006): 57-69.

Novek, Eleanor M. "“Heaven, Hell, and Here”: Understanding the Impact of Incarceration through a Prison Newspaper." Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.4 (2005): 281-301.

Palenchar, Michael J., and Robert L. Heath. "Another Part of the Risk Communication Model: Analysis of Communication Processes and Message Content." Journal of Public Relations Research 14.2 (2002): 127-158.

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